British Columbia

B.C.'s oldest ever high-school grad collects her diploma at age 92

Joan Deebank collected her diploma nearly 80 years after she was forced to drop out in Depression-era England.

Joan Deebank graduates in Nanaimo nearly 80 years after dropping out of school in Depression-era England

Joan Deebank, left, with her teacher Kim Pepler at her high school graduation ceremony at Vancouver Island University on Tuesday. At 92, Deebank is the oldest person to graduate high school in B.C., according to the province. (Ann Gillham)

Joan Deebank has done many things in her 92 years.

But she never finished high school — not until a few days ago.

Deebank walked across the stage to receive her diploma in Nanaimo on Tuesday, becoming the oldest person on record to graduate high school in B.C.

"I stood there and I thought, 'My God, this is not happening to me,'" Deebank said over the phone from her Nanaimo home.

"I was over the moon ... I never thought the day would ever come."

Joan Deebank, far right, with her classmates after their high school graduation ceremony in Nanaimo on Tuesday. (Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools District)

Left school at 13

Deebank dreamed of going back to school ever since her father told her to drop out when she was 13.

Deebank during her time in the British Army during World War II. She lied about her age to enlist when she was 16. (Family photo)

Born in Hastings, England, she grew up in the midst of the Great Depression, and it was time to get a job.

She chose to work as a maid. Every Friday, her mother would stand on the porch at the end of the day to collect her daughter's earnings.

The routine lasted two years before Deebank quit.

"I thought, 'I'm not staying here.' And I joined the army," she said.

Then 16, Deebank lied about her age to join the British army as the Second World War raged. 

She volunteered to bring tea and coffee to soldiers "on the guns," balancing a tray around the men as they fired. She'd unclip mugs from their belts, pour the drinks and place the cups at the soldiers' feet.

"She actually has hearing loss because of the guns, but she wasn't going to let the guys not have their hot drinks," said Deebank's daughter, Sonia Lightfoot.

Marriage and children

Deebank went on to marry a soldier and have four children. They immigrated to Ontario in 1959 and eventually moved to Vancouver Island.

Between motherhood and two jobs, Deebank never found the time to go back to school.

Deebank doing her homework at her kitchen table in Nanaimo, B.C. She studied literature, arts, math and comprehension on her way to earn her diploma. (Sonia Lightfoot)

She kept her mind sharp reading magazines on science, archeology, biology and art. The late Stephen Hawking was — and still is — a favourite.

Sometimes, as she got older, she would sit with the material and cry.

"She would have tears rolling down, mourning the loss of her education," her daughter said.

Last November, Lightfoot reached out to Island ConnectEd, a distributed learning school on Vancouver Island.

Deebank enrolled in B.C.'s "Adult Dogwood" program, which is tailored to older students who want to earn their high school diploma. 

Island ConnectEd teachers designed her curriculum and gave assignments to Lightfoot, who broke them down into manageable chunks.

They'd work on projects together until Deebank was tired, then pick it up again another day.

They kept at it until Deebank finished this spring.

Graduation day

Deebank after her graduation ceremony on Tuesday. (Ann Gillham)

The 92-year-old walked the stage with her class on Tuesday, collecting her diploma to a standing ovation.

"I couldn't have been more proud," Lightfoot said. 

"To see her just full of light and life, to see that joy on her face ... that was why I went down this road with her."

Lightfoot said her mom went back to school so others might be spurred to go back, too.

"She says, over and over again, she hopes to inspire people — young and old — to go to school," she said.

And, Lightfoot added, Deebank wanted to stick it to her father.

"Oh my God, he wouldn't believe it," Deebank said with a hint of mischief. 

"When I'm in bed at night, I look up to heaven and I say, 'See, Dad, I did it.'"

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